Going wild on the Otago Peninsula

Visit the NZ region responsible for protecting endangered species

  • Mitch Brook
  • July 2015

The Otago Peninsula juts out into the waters of the South Pacific Ocean, its length dotted by hills, leading down to inlets and, finally, giving way to vast grey-blue ocean. The peninsula, located directly east of the South Island city of Dunedin, is home to some of New Zealand’s most distinctive wildlife. Spend any time here and you’re sure to spot seabirds such as albatrosses, cormorants, shags and skuas, several species of penguin, jewelled geckos, sea lions, fur seals, rare reptiles, and even whales.

At the end of Taiaroa Head, the furthest point away from the mainland on the peninsula, is the only breeding colony of any albatross species located on a mainland anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

“They’re the largest of all seabirds and have a wingspan of about three metres,” says Lyndon Perriman, head ranger for the NZ Department of Conservation at Taiaroa Head. “They nest generally in remote places, so seeing an albatross on land usually only happens in places that are difficult to get to.”

The Royal Albatross Centre, perched high on the head, allows visitors to get an intimate view of the endangered birds and their hatchlings without disturbing them – and without a long sea voyage to get there.

“The population here is about 250 birds in total,” says Lyndon. “Adults come in for egg-laying in November. The hatching happens in January or February, and the chicks are here until about September.”

Looking from the enclosed viewing platform at the Royal Albatross Centre in late autumn, the chicks look a bit like fluffy clouds – they are still yet to moult and grow their sleek adult feathers before they fledge. The parents are still caring for the chicks at this stage, protecting and gathering food for them. The ecosystem is fragile, like many affected by human habitation, and requires assistance from Lyndon and his team to breed successfully.

“There are times when we’ll intervene at the nest,” he says. The process includes checking eggs are fertile, encouraging infant-less pairs to foster other juveniles, supplementary feeding and protecting chicks against flies.

“We have a lot of issues with heat here,” says Lyndon. “Albatrosses are built for [cold] conditions, so when it gets warm, they stand up to cool themselves, leaving a hatching egg vulnerable to flystrike.”

The hard work is paying off. Out of 27 chicks hatched in the last season, all 27 chicks are healthy as at mid-June.

“It’s the highest number we’ve ever had at the colony,” says Lyndon, who notes this number has occured only once before.

Albatrosses are at their most impressive mid flight when you can appreciate their three-metre wingspan – it’s clear what earned them the name “royal”.

Many operators take visitors out into Otago Harbour to see wildlife. On a Monarch Wildlife cruise, coasting out through the harbour into rougher waters off the head, we witness black and white cormorants ducking below the surface, New Zealand fur seals gambolling about below the cliffs, and several species of shag standing on the rocks waving their wings about.

One recognisable, and also endangered, species calling the area home is the yellow-eyed penguin. Their unmistakeable yellow eye and crest of yellow feathers mark them out, and they’re well-loved as an iconic Kiwi species – they can only be found in New Zealand, and on the country’s $5 note.

“The fact that they’re found close to the city, and that it’s an endangered species, has made it one of NZ’s iconic species,” says Sue Murray, general manager of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust, which operates out of nearby Dunedin. The trust aims “to work towards [increasing] numbers of yellow-eyed penguins on a self-sustaining basis within their natural coastal ecosystem”.

“We manage the land and do a lot of predator-control work,” says Sue. “Our plant nursery produces 1,500 plants per year, which are planted back into these coastal habitats,” says Sue. “The yellow-eyed penguin is a foresting penguin, requiring the vegetation for shade and shelter through its breeding season.”

The trust also runs an education program to raise awareness of the threatened species, talking to schools and working with landowners who may have yellow-eyed penguins on their property.

The caring for species on the peninsula is a team effort, with the action of one organisation benefitting many of the others, particularly when it comes to predator trapping. The same introduced predators – mainly stoats, ferrets and cats – that impact albatross and yellow-eyed penguin colonies, also affect the little penguin colony, which is located close to Taiaroa Head.

“We undertake our own predator control,” says Hoani Langsbury, manager of operations at Taiaroa Head, who works with the Royal Albatross Centre and the Pukekura Trust, an organisation that looks after the little penguins. “[In the three years to 2015], we planted 15,000 native plants into the penguin reserve.”

The work here is paying off for the little penguins, whose numbers have grown from 30 breeding pairs 11 years ago to 208 at last count.

To view the little penguins, visitors gather at dusk at Pilots Beach down a steep walk from the Royal Albatross Centre. Depending on the time of year, the evening is just as cold as the morning. The birds, only about 30cm tall, form “rafts” out beyond the waves then travel to shore in groups.

As Hoani describes, “When they arrive on the beach, sometimes in their hundreds, in the middle of the breeding season in October and March, you’ll see them wandering up the beach on [tiny] legs. [They’re] carrying extra weight in food for their chicks so they have to waddle. They almost look like little drunk people.”

On the opposite end of the scale in terms of size, the southern right whale is making a comeback in the waters of Otago Harbour and offshore.

“Southern right whales used to be abundant around mainland NZ, but were [almost] wiped out by commercial whaling,” says Dr Will Rayment, a researcher with the University of Otago Department of Marine Science, based at the peninsula’s New Zealand Marine Studies Centre.

“There was a period around the middle of the 20th century where there were no sightings at all,” Will says. “Towards the end of the century, sightings started to be reported again."

“The reason Otago is [significant] is it used to be the most important calving ground for them,” Will continues. “But Otago Harbour was the largest whaling station in New Zealand, and, at its peak, they were taking over 100 whales out of the harbour each year.”

The species nearly died out locally, with estimated pre-exploitation numbers of about 30,000 whales, falling to possibly as low as 100.

“Nowadays the NZ population is probably somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000,” Will says. Otago Peninsula is a hotspot for sightings, but the whale has a long way to go to reach its previous abundance.

It’s easy to see why the region is known as New Zealand’s capital of wildlife – not only because of the abundance of exotic species, but because the local people care so much about the wildlife and are working consistently to protect them. Those involved in caring for the wildlife are keen for visitors to see the animals, but in the right way.

“What we’d say is respect the wildlife,” says Sue. “If you see a penguin coming out of the water, crouch down low or it will go back out to sea. It’s about human behaviour.”

While you’re here

  • In Otago with the family? Check out Highlands Motorsport Park opens in new window. There is heaps of fun to be had here, including go-karting, a V8 Supercar experience, buggy adventures and the Highlands Jurassic Safari – an off-road adventure where kids can meet life-size dinosaurs.
  • Read this: Peninsula: Exploring the Otago Peninsula ($45, Penguin) by Paul Sorrell and Graham Warman offers a local’s insight to the region.